The Golden Rule of Lifting Hair Color (What You Need To Know Before Dyeing Your Own Hair)

Today, I want to discuss the most commonly misconceived idea about lifting hair color.

You really have no idea how often I hear stories of people trying to use a light blonde hair color to make their black hair turn platinum blonde.

When I used to work at Sally Beauty Supply, I got questions about this process on the daily.

It’s possible that you even tried to lift out your dye with a lighter color and found that it didn’t turn out the way you expected, right?. Maybe it stayed brown after coloring it. Maybe it got even darker.

Well, I can explain this phenomenon in precisely four words: color won’t lift color. Like, ever.

Keep reading to find out why it won’t work, and how you can lighten your hair the right way…


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The golden rule of lifting hair color is that color won't lift color. Let's talk about the basics of hair color with this clever analogy...

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The Analogy

To explain the concept of lifting hair color, I’ll be using an analogy that makes sense to most people.

Think about what it’s like to color on paper with markers… because I’d be willing to bet that you’ve done that before.

Well, markers work by transferring ink to paper when you push down on them. The ink found in markers is generally composed of different dyes. Kinda like hair color.

Okay, now I’d like to introduce you to Tiffany.

The golden rule of lifting hair color is that color won't lift color. Let's talk about the basics of hair color with this clever analogy...

She has naturally blonde hair that has never been colored. She also has no lower body or arms.

One day, Tiffany decided that she wanted to dye her hair dark brown. To demonstrate that, I colored over the blonde hair with a brown marker.

The golden rule of lifting hair color is that color won't lift color. Let's talk about the basics of hair color with this clever analogy...

She was ecstatic about her new look, as you can tell by her huge smile. And assuming she could go out, I’m sure she would have received a ton of compliments.

BUT… exactly one week later, she decided that brown hair wasn’t her thing, and wanted her blonde hair back. Pronto.

She had one of her friends pick up some golden blonde hair color to match her natural color.

Then, her friend applied the color to Tiffany’s hair and let it sit for 45 minutes, exactly like the directions told her to do. To demonstrate this, I  used a yellow marker to color over the brown hair again.

The golden rule of lifting hair color is that color won't lift color. Let's talk about the basics of hair color with this clever analogy...

So after washing out the color, her hair looks like this:

The golden rule of lifting hair color is that color won't lift color. Let's talk about the basics of hair color with this clever analogy...

What went wrong?


The Golden Rule of Lifting Hair Color

Hairdresser coloring woman's hair in the salon.

Color doesn’t lift previously colored hair.

Like markers or crayons, you can’t cover a dark color with a light color and expect it to be lighter. Basically, you’re just packing more color molecules in the hair shaft with the other dark color molecules.

The result is even darker hair.

Okay, let me explain further…


Hair Anatomy

Hair Structure Anatomy

Your hair is made of three parts: the medulla and cortex (which are the inner parts of the hair shaft), and the cuticle (the scale-like protective covering).

Melanin (aka color pigments) are located in the cortex.

The ammonia in hair color opens the scales of the cuticle, allowing color pigments to get deep up in the cortex. So when you use permanent color, the molecules are meant to stay there forever.

Let’s just say that they’re packed in there like sardines.


Why Can’t Color Lift Color?

Woman coloring her own hair at home.

So back to the example I used with Tiffany.

When she first dyed her hair brown, a bunch of tiny brown color molecules were packed into her hair shaft. She may have lost a few molecules when she washed her hair, but overall, they remained intact.

So then, when her friend applied the blonde color to her hair, a few blonde color molecules packed into the spaces where the few brown molecules washed out.

Her hair was still brown because the color molecules weren’t lifted out of her hair. 

That’s because dye isn’t meant to lift unnatural color molecules out of the hair; it’s just meant to deposit more pigment.

But then you’re like, “Hollee, why does light blonde hair color even exist? How do people go from dark hair to blonde?”

The answer is that light blonde hair color works just fine on virgin hair, or hair that’s been previously lightened or stripped.


Virgin Hair

Woman with long, healthy hair.

Virgin hair is code for hair that has never been colored.

It could be that the person has never used color in their life, or that all of the previously colored hair has grown out. In either case, the hair that you see has no artificial color molecules in it. None.

Outgrowth is always virgin hair. This is why your roots react differently to hair color than the rest of your hair (this phenomenon is called hot roots).

It’s also important to note that you won’t get drastic results with hair color. For instance, if your natural hair color is dark brown, you probably won’t be able to get to a level 10 blonde with hair color.

I mean… color can definitely lift virgin hair, but only a few levels lighter. You can always use a high-lift blonde, as they’re designed to add more lift, but they’ll never be as effective as bleach.

And remember that high-lift blondes won’t even work on previously colored hair… or if they do, the lift is unpredictable. I’m saying they could even turn your hair green.


How To Lighten Dark Hair

Woman coloring her own hair.

But have no fear! You can still lift the dark color out of your hair if you want to go lighter. Just be aware that this usually takes multiple processes, realistic expectations, and a whole lotta patience. 

If you like your hair, I always recommend having a professional take your hair lighter.

It’s way too easy to mess up your hair if you aren’t confident with these chemicals. Hairstylists spend countless hours in the salon, perfecting the chemistry behind hair color.

But if you still wanna give it a try, you gotta use bleach or a color stripper.


Bleach

I know that the thought of bleach freaks most people out, and it can definitely melt off your hair if you get crazy with it.

But bleaching your hair shouldn’t do much damage if done correctly.

If Tiffany had bleached her hair to the level of blonde she wanted, and then applied the color she wanted to her hair, it would have turned out as she wanted.

Using the marker analogy, pretend that I used nail polish remover (which, according to the internet, removes marker from paper) before using the yellow marker on a fresh canvas.

That scenario would probably result in Tiffany having blonde hair again, right?


Color Stripper

The final option is to strip the color out of her hair.

Stripping hair color removes the packed molecules, revealing natural color (to an extent).

Depending on how dark the color is, how many times it’s been colored, etc., it could take multiple processes to remove all of the dye.

Find out more about the process of lightening dark hair to a light blonde color.


FAQ

FAQ Icon
Can you lift hair color without bleach?

It’s definitely possible to lift hair color without bleach. If you have virgin hair, a blonde hair color, or high-lift dye can lighten your hair. If you do have color on your hair, a color stripper can be used to give your hair a fresh canvas.

How many levels can hair color lift?

Typically, you can lift your hair 2-3 levels with a standard hair color. High-lift colors can usually lift up to 5 levels lighter.

Can you lift hair color with hair color?

Definitely not. You’ll need to bleach your hair or strip the color out of your hair before attempting to go lighter.


Final Thoughts

Final Thoughts Icon

Hair color isn’t a magical cream that you put on your hair to turn it whatever color you like. But boy, wouldn’t that be nice?

To understand hair color, it’s important to realize that it’s a chemical, and there are physical limitations of what can and can’t be done.

One of the most fundamental things to learn is that you can’t lift hair color with more hair color. It almost always leaves you with an undesirable result.

But with a little bit of hair color knowledge and some patience, you’ll eventually get your dream color. Just keep swimming.

Until next time,

Hollee

▶︎ YOUR TURN: Did you already know the golden rule of hair color? If not, did this analogy help explain it to you? Drop your thoughts and questions in the comments section below! 👇🏼👇🏼👇🏼


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378 thoughts on “The Golden Rule of Lifting Hair Color (What You Need To Know Before Dyeing Your Own Hair)”

  1. Hi! I just bleached my outgrowth and honestly it’s been awhile probably 3 inches and now my out growth is a orange/yellow but more orange. What would you do to fix it? I tried toning with Well T-18 and 20 developer, and nothing, I used purple shampoo and nothing, I don’t know if a hi lift blonde will be effective or bleach is the best route? I have an event this weekend and cannot go with this hair.

    Reply
    • Hi T! Of course, I always recommend having a professional take care of it, but if you want to try to do it yourself, here is my advice: It sounds like you probably didn’t leave it on long enough for it to fully process. It could be that you had so much outgrowth that it didn’t all get warmed up by the body heat from your scalp. I would probably just put some low developer bleach on it (only the outgrowth) and watch it very carefully. Before washing it out, you can just wash off one section so you can see what it looks like before taking it all off. You might have to tone it again to make it all match, but you have to get the outgrowth to the same level as the rest first. Be super careful and good luck!

      Reply
  2. I have premature white hair. i can’t find the perfect color. I have to color my hair myself since it needs done every month. I like gold highlights because it goes well with my skin tone as long as not too red. my hair pulls that when i color with golds. My problem is level 5 or 6 is way too dark. If i use 7 or 8 the roots don’t take the color very well and less then a week later it fades . I use a cap when i color. i have tried combining 2 colors. I really need help finding the perfect color and i need to purchase it myself. I prefer not to use box colors and buy Schwarzkopf online.

    Reply
  3. Hi! I’m a medium golden brunette but have highlighted to honey caramel last 2 years. It’s been progressively warmer/blonde so I recently got it changed back to brunette. But I’m very unhappy with the results. She put a permany dark root color on, and then covered the rest and it came out glowing orange/brown. I almost cried, she put another toner on and now it’s inky dark uniformly, with deep brown roots and red brown elsewhere. How do I get this lightened to a nice neutral medium brown? Want to avoid more damage. I already tried clarifying shampoo. Thanks!

    Reply
    • Thanks for the question, Mary! To be completely honest, it is going to be hard to get it light again without damage. You can try to use a color stripper to see if you can get some of the color out, and then I would probably put more highlights in and gradually lighten it. If you keep using clarifying shampoo, it will gradually fade, but probably not to the shade you want it to be. Stripping would probably be the easiest way to get some of the color out. Good luck!

      Reply
  4. Absolutely loved this article.
    I have originally very dark hair. Around level 4 to 5. I wanted a subtle medium brown balayage and used wella illumina 5/7, the color didn’t show so 10 days later the hairstylist used wella magma 39 series.
    The color turned out to be nothing close to what I wanted. It is beige brown with copper reflect.
    My hair started breaking since magma has bleach in it. So now it’s been 3 months, my hair is still damaged and the color is still the same.
    I’m planning to color it again to achieve the my desired medium brown. Was hoping you could help.
    Is it true that if I want my hair color between 6-7, I should apply 7-8 as it’s already dyed?
    PS. Thanks in advance.

    Reply
    • Thanks for the question! It is hard to tell exactly what is needed to do since I don’t know how damaged your hair is or what it looks like. I would think the best route would be to have it bleached again to a lighter level (even though bleach does cause damage) and then have the target color applied. I would recommend purchasing some Olaplex #3 because it will help repair the damage done from the bleach. It’s a bit pricey but it really does help your hair. It’s not a conditioner, but more of a “bond builder” so I’d also reccommend some heavy deep conditioners in between Olaplex treatments. I use Joico Kpak almost each time I wash my hair and it really does help. Once your hair is less damaged, I would have it professionally done and only have them use low-level developer with the bleach to cause minimal damage. Good luck! Hope this helps!

      Reply
      • Thank you for replying.
        I’ve a heard a lot of good stuff about olaplex but I was planning to get it done after re-colouring my hair.
        Also, which brand do you think is better? Wella Koleston or L’Oreal Majirel?

  5. Lovely website!
    I have naturally brown hair ( perhaps 4)and I dye it for a little grey hair in color no 6Nn (?tend to have orange undertone). I want to have dark blond, it is possible to get that at home?
    Thank you

    Reply
    • Hi lili! Thanks for the kind words and question! I would probably recommend having it done professionally… at least to start with. You could do something like add highlights to slowly lighten it without damage. If not, you could lighten it to the desired level and then color it with the desired tone. I’d probably try putting some ash in the color if it pulls orange undertones. Hope this helps! Good luck!

      Reply
  6. Hi Hollee

    3 days ago I died my hair from medium/light brown to a rich plum shade. I mixed 50% purple with 50% base 6 brown. It’s lovely however I don’t feel like me and I would like your advice on getting back to brown. I don’t mind having a hint of plum but I would prefer the overall colour to be brown again. What should I do?

    Reply
    • Probably the easiest thing to do would be to strip the color or bleach it (just enough to get some of the purple out). You can get color stripper at Sally Beauty Supply. I’d go in and talk to them about it. Then I’d go in over it with the brown color of your choice. Hope it helps! Good luck!

      Reply
      • Hi Hollee,
        I have a major hair catastrophe going on My natural hair color dark blonde/ light brown and I had highlights put in my hair 2 weeks ago and the girl did a crappy job it was not even and she over bleached the root areas and my hair was white/ yellow/ and orange in areas so she told me to go to beauty supply store and buy a no.7 medium blonde hair color and
        no. 20 developer and dye my whole head the medium blonde because it will dye my hair to look closest to my natural color and I did and now I am freaking out my hair is FREAKING ORANGE.
        🙁 ugh fm!!!….l
        Please HELP

      • That sounds like a hot mess. I would probably suggest getting it fixed professionally, because it will be a rough process to fix it, but be prepared to pay more for color correction. The first stylist should have made sure you were happy before you left the salon, and should not have told you how to fix her work, yourself. I would recommend talking to her or the owner/salon manager about having it fixed or getting some type of refund. You would have to tone down the brassy tones in your hair and possibly redo the highlights, but be careful to not bleach over the same areas, or you can get breakage. I’m so sorry that you have to go through this. I really hope this advice helps and that you can get it fixed soon!

      • Holler
        I really do not want to go back to a salon I have had nothing but bad experiences at salons in the past with bad haircuts to bad highlights now I don’t trust them.
        Is there any over the counter hair color strippers that I can purchase and get the orange out .

      • I don’t think a color stripper would take the orange out. I guess if you do it yourself, the best thing to do is dye over it. depending on how orange it is, you can use an ash color to counteract it, but it will also make it darker (even if you use a blonde). You can also try bleaching it first but I’d advise against that since you already have bleach on your hair. If you do go to a salon, make sure you get someone that knows what they are doing…even if you have to pay more.

      • I used no. 7 and developer too from Sally’s even asded packet to try jeep from brassy. It still turned out brassy. Could i but store brand in ash blonde to fix?

      • You can probably do an ash toner but just keep in mind that it will probably darken your hair, not lighten it. It will just cut some of the brassiness by depositing my Color! Good luck!

  7. Hi! I have been using dark semi permanent hair colour every month for the past year I want it to be a light brown, I have tried to fade it using baking soda with vic c tablets and clarifying shampoo but nothing helps, I have in the past years ago bleached the colour but it goes orange, how do I avoid this? Is there something I can tone it down if it goes orange after bleaching before I recolour with the shade of brown I like? Should I just do normal bleach or I heard a beach bath(bleach developer shampoo) helps? Which should I do and what’s the mixing ratio? I have had a very bad bleach job in the past where a salon bleached and stripped my hair for 7hours which fried my past shoulder length hair to ear length so that scared me and I don’t want to go to a salon again to get bleached. Also I have very fine straight hair (naturally dark blonde)

    Sorry for the long message I really need advice

    Reply
    • Thanks for the question. I guess it depends on how light you want it to be, but it shouldn’t be too hard to lighten it to a level that you can color over with light brown dye. If your hair is really orange, you can use a light ash brown color which with tone down some of the brassiness. You could also try to strip it first with a color stripper. I had a similar situation a few years ago, except my end goal was to be blonde. I just had to slowly add highlights and be patient, since sometimes it is a slow process. Good luck!

      Reply
  8. I need help! My hair is a medium brown, and I have always dyed it darker. Almost black, I think a 3 for brown. I have always gone to a salon. We have well water at my home which turns any color practically orange. I do not want any type of red in my hair, or orange for that matter. Is there a way to fix this? Any products? A specific developer or color that is true and stays it’s true color longer? If I tried dying my hair, what could I use to block the redish tent that comes through?

    Reply
    • I’m guessing that the well water has minerals that are reacting to the color molecules. I know that there are products out there that will remove hard water buildup but I think those might strip your color even more. You can try maybe using a shampoo that deposits brown molecules when you use it, or using an ash brown to counteract the colors. You might have to color your hair more often. Good luck!

      Reply
      • hello i dont know how to comment. but i dyed my hair honey blonde from being jet black. i dye it jet black but wanted to do honey blonde. i used two packets of the honey blonde on my hair yday but only the roots dyed. i have one more pack of the dye as i bought 3 boxes what shall i do please help

      • Good question zoey! That’s what this blog post is really about. When you dye your hair jet black, you have to use bleach or color stripper to lighten out the color before dying it again. The downside is that it will probably not get as light as you want it at first and may be brassy. You’ll probably have to tone it so it’s not so brassy at first. The best thing to do would be to have a professional (that is experienced in this) do this process over multiple steps. It’s unfortunate, but that’s how it goes when you have dyed black hair. Good luck! Hope this helps!

  9. Hi there!

    I have asian black/brown hair with a previous ombre that has turned a bit brassy in the sunlight. I wanted to lighten it and I bought a 6A Wella permanent colour (Dark Ash Blonde). If my hair is brassy after I lighten it, do I have to tone to something before I add the 6A? If I dye on top of the brassy colour will it still be brassy?

    My other question is, if I need to tone, do you recommend any brands ?

    thanks!

    thanks!

    Reply
    • Thanks for the question! The 6A should tone the brasiness (A means ash, which means it has a blue base, which will counteract orange). The only downside with a 6a is that it might turn out a smidge dark… but if you lighten it before applying the 6A, it should work beautifully! Good luck!

      Reply
  10. I have a little bit of gray in my chestnut brown hair and would love to color it with some kind of no-lift color so the gray is light brown and acts like a highlight. I have used some semi-permanent colors but even they lighten/change my hair overall. Can you recommend one I can buy without a professional license?

    Reply
    • Definitely! I would recommend going to Sally beauty supply to buy professional-type products that you can buy without a license. There are brands made for Grey coverage… I know clairol makes one that people like. You want to use 20v developer for grey coverage. I would talk to the employees at Sally (make sure they know know about hair color). Good luck!

      Reply

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